In the final essay of a four-part series, David Christian explains how advances in communication and transportation accelerated collective learning.
We have explored some of the ways in which networks of collective learning evolve. And we’ve focused on those processes that make collective learning operate more powerfully. Now let’s explore why collective learning has taken off like a rocket since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This time period is sometimes called the Anthropocene, suggesting a geologic epoch in which humans have played the dominant role in shaping our biosphere.
To understand how quickly the networks of collective learning have grown, consider that the current global population of 7 billion is now connected into a single network covering the entire planet. Try calculating the number of possible connections between 7 billion different people!
This network is also much more diverse than any that has ever existed because it includes all the different cultures of the entire world and all the knowledge that people in each of those cultures possess. It includes all the different ideologies and religions that have spread as people have moved from continent to continent. With these moves, different materials are relocated, crops are transplanted, and goods are exchanged.
By the 19th century, refrigerated steamships made it possible to sell New Zealand butter and Argentinian beef in London, Paris, and Beijing. Today, exotic plants and hardwoods make their way from the Amazon jungle to global markets; Australian aboriginal elders teach about the Dreamtime in the United States; and 10,000 nuclear scientists from 113 different countries visit the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland to do research on particle physics — perhaps helping us to, collectively, explain unanswered questions about the Big Bang. Collective learning is now a global process fueled by the size and diversity of an entire planet. Anyone want to start compiling a list of the different things and ideas traded around the world today?
The Power of a Global Network
Within these vast and diverse networks, there are huge differences in connectedness, wealth, and power. Search engines have links to just about every computer in the world. If unevenness in connectedness is linked to unevenness in wealth and power, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that levels of inequality are greater than ever before. At present, the most powerful individual in the world is probably the president of the United States. The president has the power, theoretically, to launch a nuclear war that could destroy much of the biosphere in a few hours. The rulers of agrarian civilizations had nowhere near as much power. Inequalities in power are matched by inequalities in wealth. By many measures, the gap between the very poorest in the world and the very richest has widened spectacularly in the last two centuries. In 2008 almost 1 billion people lived on less than $1 a day. That is more people than the total population of the world just 500 years ago! Meanwhile, the number of fabulously wealthy has also increased, so the gap between the very rich and the very poor is much wider than ever before.
We can see powerful feedback cycles everywhere, but perhaps most clearly in technologies of communication and transportation. It took Darwin three years to sail around the world. Today, you can be in Sydney one day and in New York the next. Changes in communications are even more incredible. Just over 500 years ago, the breakthrough technology in communications was printing. Instead of copying the Bible laboriously by hand, printing presses could churn out many copies a day. Printing also aided the spread of ideas such as Copernicus’s and Newton’s views on the Universe. Then, in the 19th century, there came a flood of new technologies — steamships, telegraphs, railways, and telephones — followed in the next century by planes, radios, televisions, rockets, computers, and the Internet. Today almost anyone can communicate instantly with anyone else.
Think about the impact and scale of this change. More people, more diversity, and more complex networks with greater imbalances in knowledge, wealth, and power. Collective learning has become so widespread that it has turned us humans into a species capable of transforming an entire biosphere. It is these interconnected feedback cycles — a spiral of acceleration — that explain why collective learning now seems to be operating at warp speed. Where’s it all headed?
How Collective Learning Works
Rule 1 - Collective learning increases when more people are connected Rule 2 - Collective learning increases when there is greater diversity within a network Rule 3 - Uneven distributions of information produce uneven distributions of power and wealth
By David Christian
For Further Discussion
What are some specific examples of differences in the number of connections or diversity of connections that you see between different parts of the world? How do you explain these differences? Share your thinking in the Questions Area below.
Want to join the conversation?
- Given that spread of Internet is increasing, should the gap between poor and rich should be smaller, shoudln't it? Are there any prediction when this might happen and what impact will it have?(6 votes)
- Great question! I found a UN article that is related (below). The quoted UN official argues that the internet can and should be used to reach anti-poverty goals. However, as it briefly notes toward the end, the increasing access to the Internet does not guarantee equitable access or quality. Although the spread of the Internet access may be useful in decreasing poverty, it will not necessarily decrease wealth and power disparities. Rather, due to collective learning and acceleration, it seems that those with a history of access to more information, people, and services (the internet) have a significant advantage. Therefore, the gap will continue to increase. What do you think?
- Are we not making a mistake in thinking that because the poorer people of the world (who now have internet connection) are not on equal footing with the more advanced nations, that internet connection is not reaching its development goals for these people. The mere idea that the rural folks in India can now order goods, pay bills and make appointments, is a tremendous improvement in their former lives. Should the aim not be for improvement all around, rather than lessening the gap between the haves and the have nots?(1 vote)
- I think that it is wrong to think that the internet connection alone is going to make enough of a difference to allow the gap (knowledge, wealth, power) between rich and poor to shrink. People in extreme poverty spend most of their time and energy looking after basic needs of food and shelter for themselves and their family. In general, they will not have as much time to spend on learning, either because of work or if using shared equipment, don’t have ready access at their discretion. The other issue for those most poor is increased challenges regarding nutrition and health. There is a clear link between nutrition and health, and the capacity to learn.
For people living in developing countries the challenges are even greater. Aside from the challenges mentioned above, there may not be as many public services such as health care or education. Often the effects of climate change including extreme weather patterns, are felt much more significantly as their communities and governments do not have the ability to adequately protect those most vulnerable.
Flooding, famines, hurricanes, made worse by climate change and industrial accidents (Bhopal disaster), creates migration of individuals and communities looking for limited resources, and that often leads to unrest and war and situations of displaced persons and refugee camps.
It is Business communities, governments and those individuals (including me) in the most industrialized nations that create the situation that puts vulnerable people around the globe at even greater risk.
I think that we have a responsibility to those who suffer as result of our choices. And I think if they compensated adequately, and provided the resources to adapt and succeed, there may be a chance of the gap between rich and poor decreasing.
I am thrilled to see some of the great philanthropic work being done to improve the lives of many. The financial support given to Kahn Academy gives us a resource that truly is a gift to the world. Free access to great educational materials benefits the world as a whole.(3 votes)
- I think that richer or poorer shouldn't matter. People connect in so many ways whether if its by mail, telephone, internet, texting, or actually going to see the person.(2 votes)
- There is much more connection with the use of cell phones, people don't have to wait to see people to interact or wait, sometimes weeks for something to come in the mail. These differences really help because people can live far away from their family and friends, and still talk to them on a daily bases.(2 votes)
- I would say that different parts of the world are more interconnected than others in rural places you'll find that connectivity only goes as far as one is capable of traveling. In more advanced areas many individuals are capable of communicating with one another just by the stroke of a few keys linked by the World Wide Web. We find that the places most advanced now are reminiscent of the places that were once in power with the silk roads. It all coincides to those people able to progress with collective learning and innovation.(1 vote)
- One specific is language. no matter what the financial stability is of a place one huge connection difference is language. .(1 vote)
- I definitly can see the technology from the usa travrling to africa and other countries that are third world through the music culter and through sports i say this because you can see the influence from rappers and singers has become heavy on these places due to the fact that now there are more musicians coming from the islands or Afghanistan or even samalia and their making more money for their families who are poverty strickend even mexicans have blossemed with music careers that have hit world wide. And as far as the athletes well from boxing to basketball and even in new age skating events have taken a turn for the good and exposing newer talents from further out not just the usa has it on lock the world does.(1 vote)
- I've noticed that between languages and traveling let alone the use of telephones have made a huge difference in connecting people. Before letters or actually going to see that person was the only way to contact whom ever it concerned.(1 vote)